No nudes is bad news for Birmingham art gallery

The Guardian reports that Syra Miah, a Bangladeshi-British photographer, is complaining that her work has been censored because of pressure from a Muslim arts group.

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is hosting Miah’s exhibition of documentary photographs taken in Bangladesh. However, one of the photos contained the image of a semi-naked woman, which prompted a complaint from a member of the Muslim arts group Artists Circle. So, of course, they removed the offensive image immediately.

Miah is not pleased:

I felt that the whole message behind my show had been undermined by this censorship [...] During the editing process the curators seemed to want images in the exhibition that portrayed Bangladesh as another colourful Asian country. Sadly, the removal of this image, the only image in the show that could be interpreted as gritty, confirmed my growing cynical view that the museum wanted to perpetuate a myth about Muslim societies: that nudity isn’t tolerated. In Bangladeshi society – at least the one I witnessed – it clearly is.
The partially dressed figure in the image was actually a mentally ill woman who had made a home of a bus shelter. She was looked after by locals who made sure she was out of danger and fed. I think this shows a compassionate view of Islamic society

Defending their decision, the museums head of projects said:

The complaint we received was taken very seriously and it was after much consideration that the decision to remove the work from the exhibition was taken with the full agreement of the artist.

Miah denies that she was consulted.

The Artists Circle is one of the museum’s main stakeholder groups.

UPDATE: The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery replied to an email inquiry from a MWW reader (see comments below). They insist that the photo was removed with Miah’s approval:

The gallery discussed the matter with Syra Miah, and the photograph was removed on 18 July with her full agreement. Our understanding following these discussions was that Syra Miah said that she understood the reasons for the removal and accepted the decision. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery had not heard from the artist about this matter since the time the work was removed 7 weeks ago in July.


31 Responses to “No nudes is bad news for Birmingham art gallery”

  1. Jay says:

    This is bizzare. It would be one thing if this censorship demand was made by conservative religious ‘representatives’ – but this seems to have been made by an actual artists group. A group of artists demanding another artist have their work censored? What is going on? Who are the Artists Circle? And what does it mean when they are described as one of the museum’s ‘stakeholder groups’? What does that mean? Do they have a financial investment? What does this management-speak term actually mean?

    Who are the Artists Circle?

  2. Jay says:

    Further to my last comment. This is bizarre because in the past, these censorship issues have been quickened by pressure groups or bodies from a fairly similar strata – conservative identity politicians – whether Muslims protesting Rushdie etc etc, conservative Sikh groups over Behzti, the communalist Hindu Forum protesting the MF Husain paintings, or Christians over Jerry Springer, Catholics over Popetown etc etc.

    However, in none of these cases, was it other artists who demanded that the art be censored. And yet we now have a situation in which a collective of Muslim artists is demanding that the art work of another Muslim artist be censored.

    This is different from any other example that I can think of. Who are the Artists Circle? What is their agenda? What is the ‘stakehold’ in the Birmingham Museum, that they can exert this kind of influence?

    And more to the point, what kind of artists are they, that the demand the censorship of other artists work?

    Something about this is especially insidious.

  3. Monitor says:

    Not much info on the Artists Circle, I’m afraid. Their website isn’t up yet, but they are a small group of Muslim artists based in Birmingham

    Their philosophy appears to be that the primary function of art is the glorification of Allah. They put on an exhibition in Birmingham in May 2004.

    Unlike orthodox art, which is admired for its apparent beauty and style, Islamic art has an added dimension of spirituality, depth and reflection. In particular the calligraphy of Quranic Ayahs, Arabic proverbs and the words of Hadith are revered for their divine origin as well as their soul touching meaning.

    The above from The BBC.

  4. Jay says:

    Right. So the Artists Circle are basically exhibitors of prosletysing art work, which should glorify Islam. Similar to an evangelical Christian group taking a stake in a museum, placing exhibitions glorifying Christianity, and then demanding that any artwork in the domain in which they operate be censored should it offend them.

    When did Birmingham Museum become a domain for religious prosletysation?

    Does the Artists Circle now hold a veto right over the work of artists from Muslim backgrounds in Birmingham?

    The more I think of this, the more sinister and insidious it seems.

  5. Andy Gilmour says:

    Jay,

    Er..if you take a brief look at most art galleries, then the “classical” sections are usually full of works that could be regarded as religious propaganda…interestingly, though, a lot of these feature people in various states of undress, and you’d often have to know the supernaturalist background story pretty well even to recognise the events depicted… :-)

    But yeah, this seems extremely dodgy…I’m going to email this museum in Birmingham and see what they come up with, if possible…

  6. Andy Gilmour says:

    Right, I’ve sent them a message asking them to justify their stance (i.e. prove their claim to assert “moral authority” over the rest of us). If I get anything it’ll most likely be codswallop, but if it’s remotely amusing I’ll post it here anyway…

  7. Andy A says:

    It would be interesting to know what they mean by taking it ‘very seriously’ and what they said during their ‘much consideration’, because sure as hell I can’t see any logical reason why a seminude picture should be taken down. The only reason must be because it was complained of by a fucking superstitionist, and possibly, added into the mix, a desire not to stir up any Mo-toons-like trouble in a racially diverse city, instead of standing up for the artists whose work enables their gallery to be in existence in the first place, and with it the jobs of bumbling, overpaid bureaucrats with shit for brains who feel they can censor on the word of a religionist nutcase. Aaaaarrrggghhh!

  8. Andy A says:

    Well, I’ve just knocked off and sent the following. I don’t know whether it’s a bit OTT or what. It’s too late to change it now, but I’d be interested to know from others whether I’m on the right track. The name of the person quoted, BTW, is Rita McLean, and the email address is bmag_enquiries@birmingham.gov.uk. Here’s my email:

    I am infuriated by your decision to take a seminude photograph out of a display purely because a religious person has complained. I need not reiterate the story here, because it has by now received publicity – or perhaps I should say notoriety. Just what is the ‘much consideration’ you put into taking this complaint ‘very seriously’, and was there any logical thinking in your deliberations? What is the point of art if it cannot express what is there? Are you just kowtowing to religious pressure – particularly Muslim religious pressure – and keeping your heads down, for fear of another Mo-toons-like wave of bovver from these religious nutcases? It really is the thin – or the not-so-thin – end of the wedge when curators of exhibitions bow down to superstition and wreck art and photographic exhibitions, and I really should like to know what logic (I don’t mean emotion or rhetoric, or mealy-mouthed weasel utterances such as ‘very seriously’ and ‘much consideration’, which are meaningless) went into your decision. I’m a former West Midlands resident (Coventry, for 17 years), and, that apart, this behaviour on your part would offend me if I lived in Timbuktu.

    What kind of world are we moving into when superstition can close a play (Beshti, not a million miles away from you); cause a charity (Maggie’s Centres) to refuse much-needed money from the cast and crew of a musical (Jerry Springer: The Opera); cause the closore of the Hussein exhibition in London; cause death and destruction because some cartoons are published; and, now, cause the removal of items from an exhibition because a religionist has complained? You are the foot soldiers of religious fascism if you keep this up. There will be no art that has not been ‘approved’ by some unelected committee of superstitous people using bogus criteria based on their ‘belief system’. Images of pigs will disappear. The Latin cross will cease to be used for anything other than ‘approved’ religious iconography.

    In short, it stinks. And I hope you will reinstate the image and tell the public that you will not crumble under this type of pressure, because, if you don’t do so, then you’ll crumble again, and it will be something bigger next time. And there will then be another next time, and so it will go.

  9. Monitor says:

    Good work, both Andys. Do let us know if you get a reply.

  10. Heathen says:

    This story absolutely infuriates me. Are we to have no art, plays, music, etc that has not been pre-approved by a few fanatics?

    Of course, it’s almost always female artists being attacked and censored in this way – shouldn’t our publicly-funded museums and theatres be supporting female artists and artists from ethnic minorities, instead of censoring them? Clearly we are moving towards a Nazi-style definition of “Degenerate Art” and these curators in Birmingham are all too happy to collaborate. What was wrong with a warning notice of partial-nudity at the entrance for the super-sensitive? This would still allow mature and sensible people to see the work – the story behind the censored photograph sounded fascinating and humane, and very worthy of being seen, judging by the artist’s description.

    This is a craven act by the gallery, and as pointed out in an earlier post, insidous and deeply disturbing.

    Is this to be a permanent policy from now on?

    Please keep us posted on their explanation – if any is forthcoming.

  11. Bilal Patel says:

    I don’t understand why the withdrawal of one painting is causing such a fuss. If it is linked to Islamic art, then there are rules about what is permissible for art in Islam. If not, then there would be no complaint about showing the painting.

    If you categorise something then you introduce rules about whether it fits that category or not. As such, can you rightly argue that something is censorship when in fact, it does not fall under a particular category?

    I think this is much hot air over nothing, as usual.

  12. Andy Gilmour says:

    Bilal,

    What an impressively spurious argument. On what basis are the museum hierarchy claiming the authority to censor this artist’s work? For censorship it most definitely is.

    You state that: “There are rules about what is permissable for art in Islam”

    Small point of fact – we don’t live in an Islamic state. This publically-owned museum is not bound by any supernaturally-derived set of arbitrary ‘moral’ standards.

    If the photographer (assuming she is a muslim…which she may not be?) has broken these “rules”, then that’s a matter for her own personal conscience, and those that control orthodoxy in her faith…if they choose to perform the muslim equivalent of excommunication, then that’s up to them. They have, however, no legal right to deprive that artist from expressing their views, or displaying their work. Nor to prevent the rest of us from viewing it.

    Oh, and by the way, just in case you hadn’t bothered to check any of the facts, the work in question is a PHOTOGRAPH, not a painting. Does Islam have rules regarding censoring the depicting of reality, hmmm?

    Supernaturalist is as supernaturalist does, once again.

  13. Tina says:

    Hey before you all jump the bandwagon, the exhibition is called ART AND ISLAM so obviously anything every artist should think about whats appropriate in that title!

    No offence but that artist should have known better .

  14. Andy Gilmour says:

    Tina, er…and so a Muslim artist is not allowed to question these arbitrary “rules” imposed by certain interpreters of that brand of supernaturalism?

    Assuming you’re interested(!), the phrase “Art and Islam” is not synonymous with “Islamic Art”, or “Only Art that is approved by certain Islamic groups”. Sorry to disappoint you, but I think that in this case, the artist clearly DOES know better. She certainly seems to have a superior grasp of the language. :-)

    And just to extend your argument for a moment, does that go for all supernaturalists, of any persuasion? They have to follow all of the dogma, without question, all of the time, or face their actions being censored by a publically-funded, non-supernaturalist body – even though there is no legal provision for that censorship?

  15. Sara says:

    Andy Gilmore,
    Do u even know what you are arguing for here?.. it seems that you wish to argue only for the sake arguing ahainst Islamic beliefs and not for any censorship of art. For your information, the semi-naked woman depicted in the picture suffered from mental illness, a poor homeless woman with nowhere to go to but to seek refuge at a bus shelter. What about informed consent? What about the fact that the woman is not in a position to give her consent for such a demeaning picture of herself being taken. Theres not just the rights of the artists or even ART that are to be considered – or even justified.

  16. Sara says:

    Furthermore, if you read above you will see clearly that it is you, and your friends Jay & Andy A etc that come across as fanatics enhancing the needless controversy. People like you like to cause trouble and see trouble develop.. grow up!! The muslims get offended when someone attacks their religion with ridiculous illustrations.. On the other hand, people like you have the audacity to get offended when someone with enough courtesy and wisdom tries to prevent anything that will cause outrage to a group of people. In this sense the muslims still have a reason for their outrage, yet you have no reason for outrage coz your not the one targeted so neither should you be offended if another group of people isnt targeted!

  17. Andy Gilmour says:

    Sara,

    “On the other hand, people like you have the audacity to get offended when someone with enough courtesy and wisdom tries to prevent anything that will cause outrage to a group of people. In this sense the muslims still have a reason for their outrage, yet you have no reason for outrage coz your not the one targeted so neither should you be offended if another group of people isnt targeted!”

    I should not be offended if another group of people is not targeted? eh? And why does a portrayal of reality in Bangladesh “outrage” muslims? ALL muslims? And what form does this “outrage” take? And why should I care about their “outrage”? You are presuming rather too much, I’m afraid. Supernaturalists of many stripes offend me on a daily basis with their irrational nonsense concerning homosexuality, stem cell research, abortion, the rights of women…all seeking to impinge on the lives of those who don’t subscribe to their suspension of disbelief. But I have argued many times that they should be free to believe what they like, and have freedom of expression. That’s the big difference between the supernaturalists and people like me. Well, that and scientific rationalism. Hope that clarifies things for you a little?

    What offends me most is when someone tries to interfere with the free expression of others, using supernaturally-derived, evidence-free claims to “moral authority” on which to base their censorship. I don’t care which particular brand of irrationalism they adhere to. Your point about informed consent is one worth debating, but your view that the picture is “demeaning” is entirely subjective – any picture of human suffering could be regarded as “demeaning”, yet Oxfam, Live Aid, etc,etc have used them very successfully as campaigning tools, designed to improve the lives of the people depicted.

    Should those images be censored lest they cause offence? Why should I not be allowed to view this image and make up my own mind? You accuse me of not being grown up, but seek to treat people like children. Ah well. Never mind.

    Ultimately, in the words of Stephen Fry, “You’re offended? So fucking what?”.

    There, now I have given you more than you offered me – a full, rounded, coherent argument. And by the way – some of the Mo-toons made serious political points, and a couple were even funny. Just my personal opinion, no claim to moral authority – feel free to form any alternative viewpoint you like! :-)

    Anyway, down to serious business – I finally got a reply from BMAG. They say the artist is, essentially, lying. Full text below:

    “The exhibition Art & Islam: Dilwara Begum & Syra Miahis part of a year long
    programme of exhibitions and events at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
    (BM&AG) entitled “Art & Islam”. The primary aim of this programme is to
    build new audiences and to show work by contemporary artists that have been
    influenced by Islam and Muslim Cultures.

    The Museum has worked closely with Muslim arts organisations in developing
    the programme. Artists Circle is one of the Museum’s main partners for Art
    & Islam, and has been involved in the development of the criteria and focus
    of the programme from the outset.

    Syra Miah’s work is a personal photographic record of Bangladesh. In
    curating the show, the artist had specifically asked for no contextual
    information to be provided with the photographs. This left the work
    concerned, a photograph entitled “Waiting (2005)” open to potential
    misunderstanding.

    Within days of the photograph going on display the ‘Artists Circle’ arts
    organisation expressed concern at the display of this photograph in
    relation to the criteria agreed for the Art & Islam programme. The gallery
    recognised that this is a unique case where context is particularly
    important.

    The gallery discussed the matter with Syra Miah, and the photograph was
    removed on 18 July with her full agreement. Our understanding following
    these discussions was that Syra Miah said that she understood the reasons
    for the removal and accepted the decision. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
    had not heard from the artist about this matter since the time the work was
    removed 7 weeks ago in July.”

    The photograph open to potential “misunderstanding”??? What, different people might interpret a work differently? Especially not the way one small group of supernturalists wanted them to? heavens forfend!

    I’ve asked a couple of further questions…

  18. Monitor says:

    Thanks for sharing the reply for the gallery, Andy. Very interesting.

  19. Tina says:

    >>>>>In curating the show, the artist had specifically asked for no contextual information to be provided with the photographs. This left the work concerned, a photograph entitled “Waiting (2005)” open to potential misunderstanding.

  20. Tina says:

    Hey!

    My earlier comment only shows the quote :-/

    What happened there Mr Monitor Man??

    Anyway, looks like you gonna make me type again so here it is in pointers:

    1. That image was removed 18 July – blimey 5 weeks ago! Why all the fuss now? Why did Syra put up with the censor throughout the duration of her exhibition?

    2. If there was no contextual information, does that mean that the image didn’t state it was a mentally unwell lady? I’m confused. If so, then Syra has been really awful to not give audiences the information about the image that they could have used to make their own mind up about it! How do we know that isn’t another reason for removing it?

    3. Also we have no idea what exactly the nature of the complaint was. Has anyone tried asking the Artists Circle what was the reason? Is it just because she wasn’t dressed fully or cuz of this ‘no contextual info’ thingy??

    4. I did a Google search which shows Syra participated in a workshop on photography a few weeks ago. That is AFTER the removal of her image.. She could have boycotted and taken a stance then – why did she leave it so late.. coz on the 3rd September her exhibition is coming down anyway. Isn’t that weird that she starts the media campaign one week before her show ends?

    I dunno fellas – is she taking us all for a ride? Or at least, is there more to it than just a religious mob attack?

  21. Tina says:

    Oh and btw Andy –
    Regarding following supernatural dogma – thats their choice.. if people wanna have some spirituality in their life – leave em to it!

    Sara : go girl!

  22. Monitor says:

    I honestly don’t know what happened there, Tina. I did think your comment 19 was a bit terse. :) Sorry you had to retype.

    You raise some interesting questions.

  23. Andy Gilmour says:

    Tina,

    If people want to hold any supernatural beliefs, that’s fine by me. They can even preach against those things that their holy texts/leaders/revealed ‘truths’, etc tell them to dislike (usually homosexuality, sex in general, feminism, abortion, stem cell research, other supernaturalists, agnostics/atheists, etc,etc..). I believe that’s known as “freedom of expression”. And I’ll defend their right to abuse secularists like meself until I finally expire… :-)

    But I’ll only “leave them to it” when they show the same respect to the rest of us…!

    You say:
    “If there was no contextual information, does that mean that the image didn’t state it was a mentally unwell lady? I’m confused. If so, then Syra has been really awful to not give audiences the information about the image that they could have used to make their own mind up about it! How do we know that isn’t another reason for removing it?”

    The photograph was entitled “waiting”. You think Syra has been “really awful” not to spoon-feed us context. Fair enough, you’re perfectly entitled to your opinion. You don’t like her intentions. Great. I’ll draw my own conclusions, thanks. Oh, I can’t, the picture’s been taken away. Ho hum. Good thing, I expect, or I might have “misinterpreted” it.

    As I stated above, I’ve asked the museum to support their contention that the artist has lied to everyone. As soon as I get any info, I will post it…

  24. Andy Gilmour says:

    p.s. I’ve emailed Ms. Miah, requesting comment on the BMAG statement. Again, I’ll keep people posted.

  25. Monitor says:

    Good work, Andy! I failed to find her email address.

  26. Steve says:

    Artist Circle have posted a statement at http://www.artistcircle.org.uk

  27. Steve says:

    Cheers Tina

    I forgot my s!

  28. Artist says:

    It does seem to me that after the statements of both the Gallery and Artists Circle that Syra Miah is certainly
    taking us for a ride. What a great publicity stunt, complaining just before the show was to come down.

  29. Billy says:

    I totally agree with you Artist! And Tine, you have raised some good points..

  30. Ole H. says:

    So it’s not really about religion, but about a photograph that didn’t fit in the context? And Andy A. is overreacting? Oh well, that’s entirely possible, I guess. But it’s interesting that the museum didn’t form their opinion about artistic context before one of the Artist Circle chaps complained. The specifics of the complaint is interesting, but I don’t really see that as critical to the fundamental issue here. Furthermore, the thing with lack of consent from people ending up in photographs is a completely different debate. Photographs taken in a public place do NOT require consent – in most countries in the western hemisphere anyway. But that will probably change too. In the light of this, it would only take a single supernaturalist to complain about his soul being captured by the black box………